Protecting Australia

By | Category: Travel destinations

As the weekend approaches, few in parts of Australia will be welcoming it. The reason? Bush fires.

Lolly bags for the fire-fighters

To those of us living in an area where temperatures are more likely to be 40 degrees fahrenheit rather than centigrade, it might be hard to understand what some Australians are suffering. The images on our televisions and on social media look severe but you have no idea what it is like until you have experienced it.

Consequently, this story isn’t a travel story as such. It is about the strain that those fighting the fires are facing, To readers expecting travel news, apologies but here is a different side to the Australian bush that so many people visit and cherish.

Firstly let me explain why I am writing this.

My family has lived in Australia for 55 years. In the 1990’s my parents’ house was in the path of a bushfire and my father was on the roof hosing down the building. It was saved but the church across the road burnt down. Part of living in an area in or near the bush is that you should have a plan and know what to do if the worst happens.

If you live in the suburbs then you won’t be so likely to be affected because much of the bush has been cleared for housing. You will just get the smoke and eerie red days which makes seeing across to the next house difficult. Suddenly there is no bird song.  I’m not sure that suburbanites comprehend bush management sufficiently to understand the impact. Nor do some who have a weekend or second home in the bush judging by what I have seen.

In October and November 2019, the bushfires for this current season flared up. One day was considered catastrophic, the highest rating that can be given to a bush fire danger. Where I was staying – about fifty kilometres away from Sydney Harbour Bridge – it is predominantly bush with houses on five acre plots.

Bushfires are common. It is almost a way of regenerating the ground and many plant species require fire to start to grow. In a land dominated by gum trees, the oil from the leaves makes a good source of kindling. There are fires every year, some set by arsonists – who many bush fire volunteers would quite happily drive over if they caught them – some by dry lightning strikes, others by car crashes and barbecues or small fires that get out of control.

Outside the main metropolitan area it is the responsibility of the rural fire service to attend fires. These people are volunteers and paid absolutely nothing for the work that they do. It can become a family venture with family members out on the trucks or providing back up at the stations.

These volunteers aren’t just called out for fires. They are also first responders for car crashes and other accidents in their areas. They often get there before police or ambulance staff and there is talk that they should receive greater training and almost become paramedics. Yet they are volunteers who spend their retirement or take time off from their jobs fulfilling this role.

If they work in local, state or federal government or some quasi government role then you will be given paid time off. If you are self-employed or employed by a private concern then being on duty affects your income. Many firefighters are builders, carpenters, roofers, market gardeners or the like who can drop things and attend a fire if they are called out. But it also means that when they don’t work, they don’t earn. That may be manageable if it is only a day or so.

Many firefighters have been called out day-after-day, week-after-week so must be losing economically. More importantly they have been doing it for so long now that you can see exhaustion in the faces and worse. Some say that they sleep fitfully as they rest with one ear forever listening to their pagers and smart phones since the next call-out is not that far away.

It isn’t just that they attend local fires or problems. Many have driven hundreds of miles in support of their colleagues in other states or elsewhere in their own state. Some have died as a result of their community spirit and more have been injured as trees fell on their trucks. Some have experienced burns or suffered from the smoke despite having breathing apparatus. Some have seen their own homes go. All must have seen the dreadful toll of animal deaths which, it is estimated may be counted in millions.

One couple I met lost their house over fifteen years ago. It haunts them still. One firefighter who had also seen his own house burn down and who was usually so adept at fighting fires was decidly unadept as a fire came close to his own property. Memories can be deep-routed.

A wombat colony I know in Newnes in NSW and to which I have often gone, sure in the knowledge that I would be able to show visitors these furry creatures has probably be wiped out as have the kangaroos that were widespread in the vicinity. A colony of koalas near Port Macquarie has almost certainly gone as well along with hundreds of thousands of other animals.

Whilst I was in NSW I assisted in the smallest of ways. I buttered bread for sandwiches going though whole loaves at a time. On other occasions I went over to the supermarket bulk buying food for the volunteers. Ten dozen rolls into which were put hamburgers made from the dozen kilos of mince that I was buying The butchers look as I asked for nearly a hundred sausages for hot dogs is preserved in my memory. Vegemite and ham, cheese and chicken, beef and peanut butter were all bought to make sandwiches but no salad. That would make the sandwiches soggy because they could sit around for most of a day before being eaten. To this was added slabs (as they call them) of cold drinks, 24 or 48 bottles of water and cans of sugary drinks.

This seemingly huge amount would only last a few days amongst the crews which had been asked to group at one outlying fire station ready to face a huge blaze called Gospers Mountain that has so far burnt though over half a million hectares. That is over two and a half times the size of London. Gospers Mountain is just one fire out of hundreds that have erupted in Australia this season.

Supporting the fire-fighters with supplies is a part of fire-fighting that many people don’t recognise.

Everything has to be prepared in advance for them to take out with them as they go on their long shifts or to eat when they return, smoky and dirty from the fires.  But before they go for a rest their trucks need to be cleaned, refueled with both diesel and water as well as being prepared for the next shift and that can take an hour or so.

Finally there is something that I hadn’t even considered that fire-fighters might need.

Sugary sweets.

Sweets (called lollies in Australia) were bought because of their sugar content so that fire-fighters could have a quick energy boost. Some supermarkets must have wondered how many were coming to a children’s party given the kilos and kilos of jelly-like sweets that I bought. Back home, these were parcelled into packets of twelve ready to be pocketed by volunteers from all over Sydney and beyond.

There is a cameraderie which grows from assisting crews elsewhere and you learn who can be relied upon when oush comes to shove. And in a blaze that knowledge is vital.

When both my brother-in-law and my sister were out on rural fire brigade duties, I was alone at home with the animals I had been taught how to work a generator to pump water from the swimming pool and the dam in case it was needed. Fire hoses attached to outside taps were rolled out into the garden and tested in case I needed to use them to protect the house. Stray leaves were cleared from gutters and around the house in case sparks and embers, blown in the wind,  started a fire.

But you can’t keep a garden spotless and devoid of potential fire fuel. Embers came in on the gusting winds from over twenty kilometres away and time and time again, burnt leaves were found outside the doors in the morning when I awoke.

Those living in communities where there are rural fire brigades have been supportive often turning up at the fire stations with donations of food, drinks, hot meals, not just for one or two volunteers but for dozens. And often, they do so anonymously just dropping off items at different times of the day as they go about their normal lives in abnormal times.

When tomorrow dawns, many Australians will be relying on the support provided by volunteers and all the backroom staff that help them function. It would be nice if the forecasters are wrong and the winds will be non-existent and it will be milder than the mid-forties.

Unfortunately it looks like another difficult and challenging weekend for those trying to protect houses and bushland.   

an image from the Rural Fire Service in Glenorie showing the eeriness of the bush at night
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